tv 2020 ABC February 27, 2015 10:01pm-11:01pm PST
tonight, on "20/20." a diane sawyer special. a nation of women behind bars. from the little league mom to the lifer. to the youngest woman on death row. reporting now, diane sawyer. >> good evening, it's great to be back with you on this special "20/20." inside the hidden world of our maximum security prisons. the united states is incarcerating more people than any other country in the world. and women are coming into prison at a faster rate than men. more and more people in the
country, on all sides agree, it's time to ask about the giant human and financial cost. we're not here to excuse any crime, but tell us what you think. four prisons, eight months, a journey into a kind of foreign country right here at home. tonight, across america there is a nation of women living behind bars. 200,000, far more than any other country on the planet. >> whole world shattered. >> we're all in here for stealing, killing, something. >> when i first came here, i was suicidal. >> reporter: you enter the closed universe through a labyrinth of doors, security, the body check to make sure you're bringing nothing in. after that, gates, barbed wire. this prison is in maryland. so this is basically the door to the rest of your life. a life filled with prison codes and mystery. where a woman who looks like
your best friend, or your absent minded aunt, or someone on the dean's list can have caused pain or damage and have an awful secret. here you look at the inmate today and wonder about the woman she used to be in that second before she knew she had become a prisoner. >> go ahead, take your clothes off. one at a time. >> reporter: officers give the order to strip naked. >> let me see the bottom of your feet. >> i was scared. >> reporter: clothes off, you're told to squat, cough. >> cough. open your mouth, lift up your tongue. >> i was scared to death to come in here. >> when you cough, it releases the muscles, so if they are hiding anything inside of them, it will show. >> cigarettes, drugs, you name it. >> reporter: it's clear some prisoners don't want us around. >> girl, please get away from me. >> reporter: so who are the women here in this vast continent of prison? 63% are in for nonviolent crimes like drugs and theft. black women are still incarcerated at a higher rate than white women. two to one.
but the rate is closing because of the new population here. white women, many driven here by prescription drugs. they are young and old. and women like nicole koester, who says don't be sure her story couldn't happen to anyone. >> watching you on "good morning america," i was thinking about that today, i was like, you, every morning, that's who, you and charlie, that's -- >> reporter: charlie gibson, yeah. >> every morning, that's who i watched getting ready for work, and getting the kids' lunches packed. >> reporter: a loving husband, three kids, a good job as the manager of a car company. she was a little league mom. one day, a painful car accident. an oxycontin prescription, and when those pills got too expensive, she turned to something cheaper, heroin. >> it just happened. it just -- >> reporter: what do you mean just happened? >> it was for pain, and then i realized it made everything so easy. >> reporter: she stole checks to pay for drugs. >> nicole koester now has a sentence of 13 1/2 years. her husband comes to see her. she's only seen one of her children, her eldest son. >> he's the only one that talks
to me. and -- i mean, i've ruined their lives. i'm not different than any other woman here. none of them. we're all in here. >> reporter: here not only in large numbers, but with long sentences. in the last seven years, a 14% increase in the women given life. they're called toe-taggers. so we head out to find the woman named eraina pretty who's been in prison longer than any other woman in the state of maryland, 36 years. >> 36 years, growing up in here. >> reporter: do you still remember the day you walked in? >> wow, i'm doing a life sentence. it finally hit me that i was here for the rest of my life. >> reporter: when she came here, she was 18 years old. she says from a home filled with abuse. >> i was a little scared kid. all i wanted was attention, i wanted somebody to love me.
>> reporter: she says she met a boy and with his friend, they set out to rob the store where she worked and she admits, she was there for the robbery. >> this is eyewitness news. >> three people accused of the murder of a northwest baltimore grocer this week. >> reporter: eraina pretty's boyfriend shot the store owner and the clerk. she says a few years back, she asked to be executed. >> in 2003, i wrote governor ehrlich, and asked him for lethal injection. >> reporter: you asked? >> yes, because of the victim's family and everybody, i wanted them to know that i was sorry for the crime that i had committed. >> reporter: we reached out to the family of the store owner who died. they know we've talked to her. we have not heard back. >> the pain is that, when my boyfriend told me to tie them up, and i saw in their eyes they didn't want -- they said, "please don't kill me, please
don't kill me." and i told them to just listen to what he tells them to do, and nobody was going to die. so i have to live with that too. >> reporter: here in prison, eraina pretty got a college degree. a previous warden and a supervising officer have argued for her release. are you still dangerous? >> no, ma'am. >> reporter: she wonders if america is ready to let her try again. >> it would be nice to be free, but just give me a second chance because i have done so much to better myself. >> reporter: at the end of the day for this older prisoner, we head over to another cell block. it's filled with the newcomers and more rebellious inmates. nicknamed the hood. inside, raucous energy, a kind of pandemonium. it's just deafening. you can't figure out exactly what's behind it. some of the inmates are trying to watch movies on television,
but they say you can't hear. >> yeah, you don't hear the movies. you just read the captions. >> reporter: others are playing games. others are lining up for the 30 minutes you get on the telephone. but when i ask the crowd who is the best singer here and she walks up, the noise starts to subside. her name is alvera brown, pumpkin, serving eight years for robbery. and she sings a famous spiritual. ♪ why should i feel discouraged and why should the shadows come ♪ >> reporter: on the walls, graffiti. messages from some of the thousands of women who were here before. >> i was here but now i'm gone. i left my name to carry on. those who know me know me well. those who don't can go to -- >> reporter: hell. >> step into this room, please.
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we continue with diane sawyer. >> all right, ladies. >> reporter: it's like the tv show "orange is the new black." by day so many officers, so many women. an ocean of conspiracies, currency and contraband. >> where the cigarettes at? >> no, no, no, no, you ain't taking that fruit out here. >> reporter: by the way, the inmates can't see "orange is the new black" in prison because it costs money on netflix. >> what is it, red is black? black is -- what is it? >> 24 hours a day they're trying to figure out how to get it in, 8 hours a day, we're trying to figure out how to stop them from getting in. >> reporter: drugs, contraband. in maryland, random cell searches try but can't catch everything.
so where are you looking? >> every inch and every crevice. >> reporter: when you look at a room, you suddenly realize there's an infinity of places that you can store things. the smallest switch is an opportunity. >> there's a screw at the top and they screw it out and stick stuff up in there. >> reporter: there can be drugs hidden in the soft tongue of a tennis shoe. >> inside the toilet paper holder. >> and also the toilets itself. >> reporter: officers smell everything in the cell. >> making sure it is what it is. if it's soap. it's supposed to be soap. >> smells like butter, so it's not supposed to be in here. >> reporter: other prisoners have made in the past what looks like candy. >> a homemade lollipop. at one point they were melting the drugs down and -- >> and turning them into lollipops. >> reporter: as we filmed no drugs found in this cell. captain kevin branch is an investigator and says the hot drug in prison is called boxes, it's suboxone a chemical which mimics the effects of heroin. it can be found in strips as thin as cellophane. he shows us how one was sneaked in under a stamp on a letter. >> under the stamp? is that it?
>> that's suboxone, there. >> reporter: officers search for it like needles in the stacks of hundreds of letters and magazines. >> but as you look at the paper, you see this clear square, looks strange to us. >> we tore the whole thing apart and inside is a suboxone strip. >> reporter: and one strip of suboxone enough to keep you high for 8 hours. and the cost? >> $80 to $100. where on the street they only cost $6. >> reporter: and inmates in tennessee will pay $200 for cigarettes. $1,200 for a cell phone. >> you do know how they bring the phones in right? >> god's pocket book. >> reporter: god's pocketbook is prison lingo for the word vagina. there is also a technique known as the dip. >> checking for any contraband. they like to hid stuff in their dip. >> the dip is anywhere right in this area. they hide contraband. >> reporter: lieutenant anderson in maryland has her own constant
patrol. >> in their breast area, inside their panties, in their hair. >> reporter: officers and women sometimes opposing armies. >> come on, james, i gotta move i gotta see what i got. >> reporter: a prison employee needs help. can you tell me what was going on up here? >> no, i can't, i'm not at liberty to discuss. >> reporter: who is the most dangerous for the security of everyone? >> all inmates can be dangerous at some point in time. >> reporter: captain valerie hampton has been an expert on the duel in prison. the manipulation for 30 years. saying sometimes the officers become co-conspirators. starting salary for an officer in tennessee, $25,000. in maryland, $38,000. >> we have procedures that we set up to catch these bad people. and we deal with them. >> reporter: these young inmates are using art class pencils for make-up. it's allowed but they say a prisoner will pay a fortune for real lip gloss from the outside. so how do they do it? >> you just gotta know somebody that knows somebody. hell. officers bring it in, we buy it and we sell it. >> reporter: officially the women accumulate 17 cents to two and half dollars an hour from prison jobs like yard work,
sewing flags. they also have $50 to $75 credit at the commissary, a kind of small store of packaged goods which they can use for bartering since pretty much all prisoners told us they hate prison food. >> i don't eat what i can't recognize. >> hi, diane! >> reporter: good morning. so we go behind the walls into the kitchen. >> you got a lot of hair like me so we'd better get you a red one. >> reporter: jennifer tells us every item here can be traded for cash or a favor. >> everything is for sale. >> cheese, things that we don't get on commissary, those are for sale. >> reporter: especially fresh fruit. put sugar in it, keep it warm and you can make alcohol. prison hooch. here they call it jump. >> make sure you have no apples or oranges on you today. wouldn't want y'all making no julep. >> reporter: their tiny rooms. this inmate shows us how tiny. >> this is it. >> reporter: the thing, the constant smells. strong smells. ammonia, people, life, cooking. in every cell someone seems to have made a specialty from items
in the commissary. >> this is called "foreplay." it's so good, like you just can't put it down. >> your kitchen, your bathroom and your living room area and your bedroom's all in the same room. >> reporter: are there good manners that you use with the toilet? >> i do, but not everybody does, i guess that's all in how you're raised. >> reporter: grown women, tiny space, so many years. and something else you see on "orange is the new black." >> that's how much i love my girls. >> reporter: as the show points out, no code in prison is more mysterious or complex than the one governing sex and relationships. for some prison veterans what's happening is simply shocking. >> they said to me that it's the way it is out there now, miss pretty and i'm like, and this is all right? >> does not mean you're gay, just they call it "gay for the stay." >> may not be able to do all the things that a man can do for you, but you still get that companionship and you still get the physical needs. >> there are people who absolutely swear, oh they'd never do it. and now they are and then they end up arguing and fighting and crying like they're so in love and i'm like you're not even gay.
>> reporter: in prison language dom and fem. dominant and feminine. and everyone says inmates can find places to be alone. >> it's called beating the compound. it just is. you make your way. depending on how the officer perceives it. >> reporter: if there is physical contact don't you, aren't there still penalties for that? >> oh, come on, miss diane, you know i'm not going to say none of that. >> reporter: finding places in tennessee. >> in the closets, the laundry rooms, there's no cameras. >> in the freezer, in the kitchen. i've caught two in the chapel. >> reporter: and in maryland too. but the warden tells us this is not just a game. what are the rules about sex? >> we don't recognize consensual sex. there is no such thing. >> reporter: and we are told this is where a woman's prison can be dangerous too. >> that is what'll get you more in trouble here, more than anything else, are the girlfriends, that's what most of the fights are. >> reporter: the warden in tennessee spots a binder clip in a prison cell used for constructing a sex toy.
>> i found a binder clip that they can't have. >> can you show me? >> no, we're not going to do that. that's a security issue. >> reporter: and when you leave your secret goes with you. >> it's almost like, what happens in vegas stays in vegas. what happens in the penitentiary stays in the penitentiary. >> reporter: we have a note about something we wanted to let you know. while we were in tennessee, some came forward to us about atmosphere of sexual pressure from some of the guards. we'll investigate. more, when we return.
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once again, diane sawyer. >> reporter: two little girls who raise hard questions about crime, mental illness and women in prison. lindsey sang in the choir at church. a college graduate, who worked at a dentist's office while living at home with her parents. she helped nurse her mother through a brain tumor, an ideal daughter in a very christian family. on visiting day, her younger sister, lacey. then mom and dad come. mom is a travel agent, he's the manager of an automotive dealership. every sunday, this has become their church. >> we're thankful for this day. as a parent, you can imagine a lot of things that might happen to your child that you don't want to happen. daddy loves you. but you don't ever think about this. >> reporter: this, the life that began one day at home when lindsey's mother walked toward a laundry basket. >> she did the unthinkable.
>> reporter: local coverage descended on the story of the newborn twins found there, no longer alive. the parents didn't even know their daughter was pregnant. this is a police tape of linzie lowe. >> my family are very conservative christian people. i didn't want to disappoint anybody. i was just trying to keep them quiet. >> reporter: she says, to keep them quiet, she put her hands over the babies' mouths. linzie's parents and lawyers say it is clear. she had a psychotic break, she wasn't hiding the crime. she left the babies at home. >> dissociative symptoms. confusion, delirium, and stupor. >> reporter: she was on suicide watch after her arrest. then after the verdict -- >> we the jury find the defendant guilty of first degree felony murder. >> reporter: she turns toward her stricken family, and mouths, "i'm okay." the 26-year-old woman will not even be able to see a parole
officer until she is 85. today at the tennessee prison, she's on medication, joining the 63% of inmates here who line up fop pills as many as three times a day. >> that's three hours. it's hell. >> this is what happens when mental health breaks down. >> reporter: it is one of the biggest different between male and female prisons. nearly 60% of women come in after physical or sexual abuse. for men, it's just 16%. in maryland, for those who are mentally ill and in crisis, a suicide watch. these patients are placed in a kind of isolation. bare cells for their protection. no sheets, pillows allowed, only smocks. >> if you have a long-sleeve shirt, there's a possibility of you strangling yourself. >> reporter: but the question -- should this be the role of america's prisons? housing an estimated ten times the number of mentally ill as america's hospitals. there are some medical personnel
but inmates stand watch day and night. in the last five years, despite attempts, there have been no deaths by suicide. >> heavenly father, we just want to pray lord, amen. >> reporter: and across the country, more bare cells for those with anger and impulse control problems. who've threatened violence against officers and other inmates. here in washington state, prisoners chained to chairs and desks. attending a class on using words instead of fists. >> worry, anxious. >> reporter: here too, stone walls. stone bed. stone desk. a constant din of haunting howls on the corridor. in one cell, anna castellano, alcoholic mother. foster care. sexual abuse. >> i get angry. i get angry fast. >> reporter: before prison, she attempted suicide. she wonders about other lives. >> like just normal people out there, you know. like, what am i doing wrong?
i think they come home from a good job, and see their wife or whatever. and just have a home, a bed, a place to sleep. happy. ice cream. pizza. you know? >> reporter: in the two decades i've been covering prisons there's been a growing controversy about the use of solitary, which prisons call segregation. there is also a change of access. >> it was a long night. i won't say it wasn't. someone's praying down the hall. >> reporter: today, more secrecy. concern about security. >> you can't go inside. >> reporter: but in the windows i can see the faces of women trying to hold on to something on the outside. two teachers come, with lessons in grammar, math. >> i'm back. today's lesson has to do with commas. >> reporter: he even leaves a homework assignment. >> and you can try and have that done tomorrow, okay? alrighty, bye. can you read about rectangles right there? >> rectangles are everywhere.
>> reporter: you would think they would say, "why bother? why bother? i'm here." back in maryland, we go to meet that other little girl in the photo you saw earlier. her name, sirlilar stokes. she spent four years on and off the unit called segregation. >> i end up busting her head open coming out of my cuffs. >> reporter: she's been diagnosed depressive bipolar. she says she grew up in poverty and joined a gang because she wanted to have the fancy things other kids did. she was convicted of three attempted murders, and in a moment of rage aimed a gun at a girl who survived. how close were you? >> a couple feet. >> reporter: when you pulled the trigger, what were you thinking? >> i wasn't thinking. >> reporter: did you think you'd killed her? >> i don't know. i don't know. i just, it, have you ever had an out-of-body experience where you see yourself, but you're not actually there, you don't hear anything, you don't smell
anything. it's just like tunnel vision. that's how it was. >> reporter: at the end of her sentence, sirlilar stokes will be 69 years old. but there's something else you should know about the little girl in that picture. she was so bright, she was singled out for scholarship money, and said to a reporter she was excited at a better chance of college. what would you have been -- what would you have studied? >> oh, man. anesthesiology. >> reporter: why that? >> i just think, i like meticulous things, so that would be something that would challenge my mind. >> reporter: she's on medicine and therapy now. a room full of books. >> and i wanna prove myself, prove that i can be, that i've changed. >> reporter: and when she offers up her dream of freedom, it was not what we expected. >> the sweetest thing of freedom is to actually be able to be yourself. that's the sweetest thing of freedom. see, freedom is up here. >> reporter: to be in control of yourself. >> exactly.
in "invisible man" by ralph ellison, he says, i am only but myself. >> reporter: and when we reached out to the woman sirlilah stokes attempted to kill with that gun, she told us she believes in forgiveness. warden margaregt chippendale in maryland said she thinks only a handful of prisoners are beyond change. >> i believe that the vast majority of the women in this institution are good people that could be returned to the community someday. good job. and if i don't believe that, i'm in the wrong profession. >> reporter: if it's punishment. >> first of all, i'm going to take the position that it's not my job to punish. the courts did that. >> let me see redemption win. >> reporter: and back in tennessee, a volunteer choir director named tina hutchinson says, "if you can't understand the prisoner, try to understand the struggle." >> they teach me, more than i can ever teach them about what it is to survive, to endure.
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tonight, 32 states in america have the death penalty. we're divided so the state in which the crime was committed can determine your fate. we decided to track down the youngest women facing the dea sentence. ocala, florida, the lowell correctional institution. two young women come down the hall, waving, smiling together like girlfriends. >> hi, how are you? >> reporter: they are tiffany cole, now 33, emilia carr, now 30. two separate crimes, two separate lives, until they became neighbors on the notorious corridor. do you call it death row? >> no, we call it life row.
it's life row. >> reporter: life row, why? >> because we're not dying. we're living. >> reporter: do you ever think, i might be executed? >> no. you can't have that mentality because that means you've accepted this. >> you've already died. you're already dead. >> reporter: two women, neither of whom had ever spent a night in jail before, living lives so familiar. tiffany played the flute in high school, cheerleading, girl scouts. emilia, book smart, says she modeled and was in the school marines. both say they were sexually abused as children and met the wrong guy. tiffany says barely knew her boyfriend. >> three weeks. >> reporter: three weeks, and had you ever been in trouble? >> mm-mm. >> reporter: it is hard to connect the face in these photos to the horrible crime, committed with her boyfriend and his friends. neighbors of her family, first robbed, then buried alive in a grave. >> i didn't know what was coming. and that's all i'm going to say about that.
>> reporter: her lawyer told the court tiffany cole thought the grave was for items they were stealing. he also talked about that sexual abuse by her father and her drugs, her mental and psychological problems. the jury saw a damning photo after the crime. they convicted her. >> i am not the same person anymore. i have peace. i have joy. i have a sound mind. >> reporter: emilia, the youngest woman on death row, convicted of another horrifying murder, helping her boyfriend suffocate his wife with duct tape and a plastic bag. there is a police tape of emilia after her boyfriend confessed. she's eight months pregnant with his child. >> he asked me to try to snap her neck. i was shaking so bad. >> reporter: she admits she was there, but she says not when the wife was actually killed. her lawyer argued there was no physical evidence that she had even touched the duct tape. but when the judge gave her her sentence, he called her cold,
and said "may god have mercy on your soul." the duct tape and the asphyxiation, what do you feel? >> in what aspect? like, reflecting? >> reporter: yes. they say they are reluctant to talk details of the crimes because they are both appealing their sentences. >> it's hard to answer because, like, i wasn't where all that happened. but looking back and thinking about what she had to go through, and you know, what her family's enduring is terrible. >> reporter: and they ask some questions of us about the justice system. a study estimates, 1 in 25 people on death row is innocent of the crime, and 75% have no money for private lawyers.
emilia says she had no money. but her boyfriend hired a high-powered attorney. he got life. she got death. >> how many rich people go to prison? seriously, seriously. >> on death, on death row? life sentences? >> we're all people who are either minorities or didn't have any money. unfortunately, equality is an illusion. >> reporter: and before i leave, she has another question, this one, about tv. >> i have a question. why do you think there's such a desire to make women look so bad in the media, you know? >> reporter: they watch endless crime stories about women who kill. >> like jodi arias. that thing went huge. i don't understand why does america want so bad to feed off of this negativity? >> reporter: the young women get up to go back to their cells 24 hours a day, except for the three times a week they're outside on concrete, for two
hours. in a different building, the chamber where florida executes death row inmates. across america, there have been five executions of women in the last decade. another one scheduled for monday. and when we contacted the victims' families in both these crimes, they told us they believe the death penalty is right. the women said they will go back to their books and their prayers. >> and praising god in the process, you know, and just showing people, we're people. >> it's not over. there is forgiveness and there is hope. next, one prison where they believe the inmates should keep their humanity. watch what happens when they break free. when we return. n conrad for her. pretty dresses for teens... and for your little princesses too.
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>> reporter: a 53-year-old woman, betty brown, is leaving prison after 29 years. the wardens say women age faster in prison. >> am i scared, am i afraid? absolutely, because i've been locked up such a long time. but i'm going to be all right. >> reporter: america has an unprecedented number of older women serving long sentences. betty's blood pressure is high. she's on seizure medications. in for second degree murder, she was a mentor over the years to sirlilar stokes. >> always crying! it's gonna be alright. >> let me tell you something. the same way i made it, you're going to make it. >> reporter: this one prison has cost taxpayers more than $1 million. and after all these years, betty is taking with her $50, five boxes of books and a thank you for the warden. >> miss chippendale. mr. acoombacon, it was nice knowing you.
>> thank you very much. >> just a little few more steps. gotta make it. i made it this far. real air! real air! >> reporter: warden chippendale has nearly 90 programs in maryland. makes a difference when they leave? >> i think it makes a huge difference. >> reporter: experts say education reduces recidivism by 43%. >> this college offers classes in maryland, but there's a waiting list. in addition to the programs, warden chippendale says something else is important, keeping a woman connected to humanity. >> right here! >> reporter: their big night, the prison version of "dancing with the stars," just like in the tv show. >> you know the wave. >> reporter: prisoners with good behavior can apply to compete. >> i practice like every day, even in my cell. >> reporter: this inmate is really nervous. >> she was an older lady than me
so i was like, "oh, no, i cannot drop this lady." >> reporter: so the officers bring the clothes and look at the transformation. before. after. before. after. inmates facing decades in prison as rock stars. >> i look at technique. i look at synchronization and choreography. >> reporter: they dance, and the judges, who include the assistant warden and officers, vote. the prize, some small things we might take for granted. >> toothbrush, soap. >> reporter: the winner is the oldest contestant. she's 48. >> it makes me feel happy, instead of being negative all the time. >> reporter: and so what is the recidivism rate in maryland? 40.5% in 2012. the latest national rate is 68%. >> i think it's because we've invested time. we've invested money and talent into providing resources for offenders. >> hold up right there. >> reporter: but as we said, every state has a different philosophy. tennessee believes that prisoners should be rigidly controlled in how they walk and dress. >> so the female offenders walk in a straight line.
they have their hands out of their pockets and that's for a safety reason. >> reporter: they also have programs in tennessee, about 27 of them. and their recidivism rate here? the latest published data from 2007, it's 46%. and while i'm there in tennessee i start talking to a prisoner who is about to be released. >> she has to be behind a barrier when she talks to you in the door. she'll have to be sitting with her feet. that's our policy. >> reporter: do you have a favorite book here? >> i think augustine burroughs. i like "possible side effects." he wrote "running with scissors." >> reporter: yes. >> i love him. >> morning. >> reporter: later at breakfast, jessie thomas tells me about her medications, pamelor, prozac, tegretol for mental health problems. >> one's for depression. one's for bipolar and one's for anxiety and adhd. >> reporter: she's in prison for theft, and says she started using drugs as a teenager. jessie also tells me she found a soul mate in prison, but her soul mate is in for 25 years. >> i love you. >> i love you.
it's just a really healthy relationship. >> reporter: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. on the day she walks out, she has $68, three t-shirts and a few notes from her girlfriend. and even though she's supposed to be given 14 days of medication, she says she has nothing. her younger sister picks her up. their first stop? taco bell. >> can i have a cheesy gordita crunch? >> reporter: but the sister can only keep her one night. jessie says she wrote halfway houses, shelters, job centers, but two rejected her, and the others didn't answer. in the car, a favorite song. ♪ feel like you still have a choice ♪ ♪ if we all light up we can scare away the dark >> starting fresh, starting over. i see it really overwhelming. >> reporter: on her first night
free, she records a video diary. >> a lot of options, and i'm scared to make the bad ones. i'm scared to make the wrong ones, so i don't want to make any. i don't know what to do to distract myself. the only thing i've ever really done -- it's really just get high. maybe i'll get some sleep. maybe i'll just lay here and think about sleeping. >> reporter: experts say the first month out of prison is the most important. jessie says it was nine days after she walked out that she finally got her medication and she's already missed 20 doses. she got a job washing dishes. but 34 days after release, police charge jessie with robbing two pharmacies to get money for street drugs. tonight jessie is back in jail.
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we continue with a nation of women behind bars. once again, diane sawyer. >> reporter: you'll remember nicole koester, who started out on prescription drugs. her husband tracy makes the two and a half-hour drive every week to spend 60 minutes with her. >> she's my girl. she's always going to be my girl. >> better or worse, remember? >> yep! >> reporter: she is eligible for a parole hearing in may. >> are they here? >> reporter: on another day eraina pretty who's served 36 years, waiting to see her little 9-year-old grandson. >> hey, boy. look at you! you're looking like mama. i'm gonna take you places and it's going to be me and you. >> why can't we call you? >> because it's a special phone
and it don't take in-calls. you understand it? >> uh-uh. >> if i had a cell phone, i'd be like -- >> reporter: eraina is eligible for a parole hearing in june, but it will be her fifth try. and someone else is waiting. remember sirlilar? her mom comes with her 93-year-old grandmother. she's had two strokes. >> she loves me. i know that, and i love her, too. oh, there she is. >> what's up, mama? >> give me sugar. you my baby. >> don't cry, don't cry. hold your tears. >> you doing okay? >> we do a little game, or a competition of how much i love you more. you know, just trying to make me feel, just to know that someone
loves me. >> i love you more than all of the leaves on the pages in every book that has been printed. >> i love you more than all the holes in every vent in every prison in the entire universe. boom! >> what holes? >> we got holes in the vents! >> i still think my books beat that though. i really do. >> at this current time the visit is now over. >> i gotta go. >> it's time for us to go. >> oh! so rude. >> reporter: sirlilar knows with her full sentence it will be 43 years before she leaves. she will be 69. >> everybody i love will be gone, that's it. >> bullets pierce. handcuffs are tight. cells are lonely. >> reporter: and tonight at this moment across america, hundreds
of thousands of women, getting ready for the door to lock again. just asking for a little understanding. >> from us towards you and from you towards us. >> testing out radios once again. there will be no more inmate movement for the night. >> and so now, we return to what you think about the questions we asked when we began. is it time to look at america's prison system? is it sustainable? what works? after 20 years of reporting, these questions are only getting bigger. join us on twitter and facebook on the "20/20" page. we want to thank the wardens and all of you who joined us tonight. good night.